Beginning with the 2002-03 season, the WCHA changed its scheduling system, creating “rivals” which would play each other four times each season (and play the other schools twice one season, four times the next, and so on). Minnesota and Wisconsin were paired up, as were Colorado College and Denver. All four of those schools, and particularly Minnesota and Wisconsin, would have made excellent schedule partners for UND.
And which of the remaining teams would become North Dakota’s schedule partner? Alaska-Anchorage? Mankato? No, as the two newest members of the WCHA (1993 and 1999, respectively), the Seawolves and Mavericks were paired with each other. How about Minnesota-Duluth or Michigan Tech, schools which had been members of the conference for over 35 years? No again. Those two schools are just over 200 miles apart, and that was certainly a factor in the decision.
That left St. Cloud State, a familiar foe for Sioux fans from North Central Conference football and basketball games. The St. Cloud State Huskies had been a Division I hockey program for 15 years (and a WCHA member for 12) before the 2002-03 season, and had posted a 83-34-6 (.699) record over the previous three seasons. By contrast, from 1999-02, UND held a record of 76-35-16 (.654).
The two schools had played a handful of meaningful games in the past. In 1991 (St. Cloud’s first in the league), the Huskies and Sioux met in Grand Forks for the first round of the WCHA playoffs. St. Cloud took the opener, 4-2, before falling 10-2 and 7-4 in games 2 and 3. The two teams met in the 1998 and 2000 WCHA Final Five semifinal games, with North Dakota prevailing in both contests. Perhaps the best reason to be optimistic about the rivalry was the 2001 WCHA Final Five championship game, a hard-fought contest which St. Cloud State won on Derek Eastman’s overtime winner.
It’s fair to say that in 2002 there was confusion AND cautious optimism surrounding the potential rivalry between the two teams. (And on a personal note, I had already traveled to St. Cloud for the Sioux/Husky games four times before the rivalry announcement was made, and I was more than pleased that I would now be able to make this trip every year.)
It’s also fair to say that the rivalry has caught on over the past five seasons. The two teams have played eight overtime contests in their 24 regular-season meetings, and points are tough to come by, at home and on the road. The fans have also made their mark on the partnership between the schools, as the UND/SCSU rivalry now has a commemorative fan trophy, thanks to the Center Ice Club at St. Cloud State University:
The UND/SCSU Challenge Cup is awarded to the team which collects more points in the four regular-season games. As you may be able to see in the photo above, the winning team is engraved for each year. UND won the Challenge Cup in 2005, going 3-0-1 against the Huskies. St. Cloud took the trophy back in 2006, sporting a record of 3-1-0 against North Dakota. In 2007, the Sioux won two games and tied the other two, collecting six points and the Challenge Cup. And last season, the teams shared the cup, with UND and SCSU each winning one game and tying the other two.
We will be bringing the Challenge Cup to the pre-game social at Southgate Grill and Bar in Grand Forks on Saturday, December 13th. Stop by between 3:00 and 6:00 for a look at the trophy and a chance to meet fans on both sides of this hockey rivalry.
Check back for a preview of this weekend’s games. As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions.